Psychiatrist explores taboo subject in first novel

Lauren Ziegler

Psychiatrist Dr Dawn Barker, the mother of three, was curious about how a family deals with postpartum psychosis and infanticide. Fractured was written to satisfy her interest in an uncomfortable, taboo topic, and to allow others to do the same. It’s a novel that could only have been written by someone with knowledge of psychiatry, experience as a mother, and a flair for descriptive, emotional and suspenseful writing. Dawn Barker fits the description perfectly.

As believable as it is terrifying, Fractured brings the reader into a world of mental illness and its disturbing, snowball effect on a young family living in Sydney. The experiences of the characters are not only intended to tell a story, but to educate the public about mental illness, and help break down the fear often surrounding it.

Born in Scotland, Dr Barker has been living in Australia since 2001, and currently resides in Perth. She has been writing fiction privately for years, but her published works have thus far been non-fiction. Since becoming a mother, clinical work has taken a back seat to mothering and writing, and 2013 has been an exciting year for her.

Although she has never dealt with a case of infanticide, her interest is intense. “I always had that sense of, what if that happened to a family? How would they ever get over it? How would the wife feel when she recovered and found out what she had done?” With nobody to answer her questions directly, she sat down at her laptop and wrote Fractured.

Dr Dawn Barker draws on her experience as mother and psychiatrist to reach out to people.

Dr Dawn Barker draws on her experience as mother and psychiatrist to reach out to people.

It seems like a relatively simple task: a psychiatrist-turned-mother-turned-author, writing a novel about a new mother suffering severe psychiatric illness. And it’s true, there was very little additional background research needed to create the frighteningly believable downward spiral of Anna, the novel’s troubled protagonist.

However, In a number of ways, it was not an easy project. One of the biggest challenges was writing from knowledge, but not from experience. Confidentiality and privacy between patient and psychiatrist is crucial, which posed certain hurdles throughout the writing process.

“It was tricky to make sure that nothing I was writing was a specific symptom or delusion that a patient had had. I changed anything that reminded me remotely of a patient,” she says. “Hallucinations, low mood, delusions – they can only take so many forms. I do know that there will be patients who’ve had very similar symptoms, but I was very cautious. I didn’t want anybody to think I was disrespecting their illness.”

Being a psychiatrist is a difficult occupation. Treating and counselling those with mental illness is emotionally trying and exhausting. A psychiatrist must learn to lock away her own emotions, life events, ethical beliefs and so forth. But even the most experienced, respected professionals need an escape from dealing with so much difficulty on a daily basis. In Dawn Barker’s case, writing fiction was her release.

“Fiction is a way for me to escape, a way to explore scenarios freely,” she says. “It was a catharsis for me, to take raw emotions and develop a story around it.”

Writing fiction was a challenge, but a welcome one. While she loves writing non-fiction, it can lack the creativity and imagination that fiction allows. “You have to enter a different space, a different world, which is difficult to do in small chunks of time,” she says. Yet these small chunks of time were all that were available to her, especially as she was caring for a new baby. “It was definitely challenging, but that’s probably why I do it.”

After giving birth, she was lucky to not have problems with postpartum depression or psychosis. However, the knowledge gained by being a mother was invaluable. “There were certainly times when I felt very overwhelmed at 4 o’clock in the morning when I hadn’t slept for days,” she says. ” There were some dark moments. Without having been a mum, I don’t think I could have written those scenes.”

Dawn Barker has high hopes for Fractured. Having drawn upon her experiences as a mother and psychiatrist to create her acclaimed debut novel, she wants it to reach out to the public. In the short time since the book was published, Dawn has been contacted by an overwhelming number of people sharing their own related experiences.

“People feel quite ashamed to admit to having mental illness. I’ve been amazed by the amount of people who have emailed me or come up to me, and have said that they’re glad I wrote it,” she says.